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Series Preview: Red Sox at Astros

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The Sox look for revenge for last year’s playoffs loss

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation Blog

The Crawfish Boxes

The Opponent in one sentence

The defending world champs remain one of the best teams (more likely the best) in baseball thanks to an absolutely stacked roster that boasts a loaded lineup and the game’s best rotation so far in 2018.

Record

35-22

Head-to-Head Record

Red Sox 0, Astros 0

Trend

The Astros are consistently good enough and have a balanced enough roster that there aren’t a ton of downward trends for them at any given moment. That being said, they are in something of a downward trend at least by their standards. They are in the midst of a pretty tough stretch as prior to this four-game set against the Sox they travelled to Cleveland then New York for seven games against the Indians and Yankees. They certainly didn’t stumble completely for those series, but they failed to break even with a 3-4 record.

Pitching Matchups

5/31: Drew Pomeranz vs. Lance McCullers, 8:10 PM ET

The pitching matchups in this series are, by and large, an intriguing bunch. This first game is the one that is certainly going to make Red Sox fans the most nervous, though. It’s not exactly a secret that Pomeranz has been struggling pretty much all season, and it’s to the point that it’s actually a surprise that Alex Cora and company have decided to keep him lined up for this start. That does show some confidence in the lefty, which would be at least a little encouraging if we could see where it was coming from. There’s not much to be excited about here, though. Pomeranz is struggling with his velocity, isn’t commanding any of his pitches and is essentially a two-pitch pitcher right now. We’ve seen him turn around a season unexpectedly before, but he was also never quite this bad in 2017. If he doesn’t show marked improvement on Thursday, this could be a very quick night.

When McCullers is on, he can be one of the most intimidating pitchers in all of baseball as he has electric stuff that can shut down any given lineup on any given night. However for whatever reason, he has never been able to harness it on a consistent basis. Granted, he’s only 24 years old so it’s not as if he doesn’t have time to refine his work on the mound, but it just seems as if he should be better. So far this season, the righty has made 11 starts and has tossed a total of 63 13 innings. Over that time, he’s pitched to a 3.98 ERA (96 ERA+) to go with a 3.56 FIP and an impressive 2.96 DRA. McCuller’s biggest problem is that he loses command at time, which can lead to walks (3.6 per nine innings this season) and some home runs despite a heavy groundball tendency. For the most part he has been good this season, but he has had two blow-up outings including his last time out when he allowed seven runs to the Indians in just 4 1⁄3 innings. McCullers will feature a mid-to-high-90s two-seam fastball to go with a curveball he throws almost half of the time and a changeup.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

6/1: Chris Sale vs. Gerrit Cole, 8:10 PM ET

This is easily the best pitching matchup of the series, and the must-watch game of this weekend. (They’re all must-watch, of course, but this one is even more must-watchy than the others.) Sale, as we’ve discussed all year, seems like he’s been missing something pretty much all year, but for the most part he’s been able to put up ace-like results despite not being quite as dominant as he was in 2017. The weirdest part of Sale’s season to date is definitely his control, and he’s compiled nine walks over his last three starts. For reference, he had just 11 walks in his first nine starts. He’ll need to find a way to harness his stuff this time out against one of the elite offenses in the game.

Cole has been the guy to take the Astros rotation from really good to other-worldly after being acquired in a trade from the Pirates this past offseason. The deal seemed lopsided in Houston’s favor at the time, and that was with the righty never quite living up to his potential on a regular basis. Well, he’s lived up to the hype and then some in 2018. Through his first 11 starts with his new club, Cole has pitched to an impressive 2.08 ERA (186 ERA+) with a 2.33 FIP and a 1.37 (!!!) DRA. He has been bananas. He’s striking out over 13 batters per nine innings while walking just 2.3. Cole doesn’t even really have a blemish on his resumé this year, having allowed no more than three runs in any start this season. He’ll feature a high-90s fastball to go with a slider and a curveball.

6/2: David Price vs. Justin Verlander, 7:10 PM ET

With Pomeranz struggling, an already important season for Price has possibly gotten even moreso, but fortunately he’s risen to the occasion his last few times out. There are still some concerns for the lefty even behind the fear that any start could be the one that his elbow gives out. Although he’s done better with this when he’s had to, Price still has a tendency to lean too heavily on his fastball and cutter without mixing in a true offspeed. Its a repertoire that can work when his command is spot on — his backdoor cutter to righties is right up there with Sale’s wipe-out slider in terms of aesthetics in this writer’s opinion — but it needs to be perfect. Price is going to need his command for this start, and it wouldn’t hurt if he brought his changeup too because that’s been a great pitch when he’s wanted it to be.

Verlander’s resurgence since joining the Astros last August has been both exhilarating and infuriating. It’s been exhilarating because, well, he’s been amazing and watching amazing pitching is fun. It’s been infuriating because come on the Astros really didn’t need a Hall of Fame level pitcher added to this roster. That’s exactly what they’ve gotten, though, as Verlander is throwing arguably as well as he has at any other point in his incredible career and has been the game’s best pitcher through two months of this season. The righty has made 12 starts so far this season and has a 1.11 ERA (344 ERA+) with a 2.24 ERA and a 1.74 DRA. Those are stupid numbers, and I really don’t want to talk about them anymore. Verlander, despite being in his age-35 season, is still averaging 95 mph on his fastball to go with a slider and a curveball.

6/3: Rick Porcello vs. Charlie Morton, 7:30 PM ET

Porcello, as we talked about earlier this week, had been trending in the wrong direction heading into his last start against the Blue Jays. He turned things around in that start, though, at least by the numbers. He got through most of that start having not allowed too much damage before falling apart in his last inning. It should be noted that the 2016 Cy Young winner was still missing his spots a little too often for comfort in that outing, and a better lineup may have been able to do more damage. Still, he was throwing more sliders and two-seamers and that’s the best version of Rick Porcello right now. He needs to go with his best pitches this time out, and he has to spot them on the edges of the zone or he’s going to get into early trouble.

Morton is one of those guys that we probably should be talking about more than we do, as his transformation from journeyman to electric flamethrower is absolutely absurd. It did start a bit before he got to Houston, but the Astros have honed him in as an electric starter. The righty has made ten starts so far this season, pitching to a 2.04 ERA with a 3.47 FIP and a 1.92 DRA. Morton gets a ton of strikeouts and doesn’t walk many batters, but every once in awhile he can be exploited with the long ball. That’s where the Red Sox will look to do their damage on Sunday night. He throws two different fastballs that both pump in the mid-to-high-90s to go with a curveball.

Old Friends

Josh Reddick, of course, came up as a Red Sox prospect but was sent to Oakland prior to the 2012 season in the deal that brought Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney to Boston. The right fielder spent five years with the A’s before being sent to Houston at last year’s trade deadline before re-signing there this offseason.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Notable Position Players

There is a ton of talent in Houston’s lineup, but José Altuve is undoubtedly the face of this group. Last year’s MVP is among the smallest players in recent memory, but it doesn’t show in his game. The second baseman will show surprising pop for his size to go with some of the best contact skills in all of baseball. It’s kind of unfair.

Altuve’s fame and hardware aside, Carlos Correa may very well be the best player on this roster. The former number one overall pick may not be the Mike Trout-ian level it feels like he can be, but he gets on base and hits for mammoth power while holding down the shortstop position. Oh, and he’s only 23. Unfair.

George Springer was once a young power hitting outfielder with tons of potential but a guy who would strike out all the time. Well, he’s still hitting for a ton of power but he’s now among the upper class of contact hitters to boot. Unfair.

Alex Bregman was taken a few picks ahead of Andrew Benintendi and has turned out to be just as promising as Boston’s young outfielder. The Astros third baseman has some of the best plate discipline this side of Joey Votto and he also makes consistently hard contact. Unfair.

Marwin Gonzalez was the Astros Brock Holt last season, except a much better hitter. He’s regressed heavily at the plate this year, but he can still play all over the diamond and his bat shouldn’t be this bad all year.

Evan Gattis is mostly manning the DH spot these days, which is a much better fit for the right-handed power hitter.

Yuli Gurriel is a former Cuban star who hasn’t exactly been a star in the States but is still a steady hitter who is liable to go on a tear at any given moment.

Max Stassi has been a surprising producer at the plate this year, and while it’s largely unsustainable he does have pop in his bat.

Tony Kemp is going to get on base a ton and almost always put the ball in play while having success doing it. Because of course.

Bullpen Snapshot

Ken Giles should be one of the elite closers in the game and has had that kind of talent since being with the Phillies a few years ago. He has never been able to harness it, though, and the Astros closer has been a ticking time bomb all year yet not allowing a single walk to this point in the year.

Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock help make up for Giles’ struggles as they are both wildly talented and both can throw multiple innings at a time.

Injuries

Reddick is the only old friend on the roster, but we won’t see him this weekend. The outfielder is out with an infection in his leg.

Brian McCann is the Astros primary catcher but he was just placed on the DL a couple days ago with a knee injury.

Derek Fisher was sick enough to be put on the disabled list last week but he’s back in game action. There’s a chance they’ll keep him in the minors when he’s fully healthy.

Jandel Gustave is recovering from Tommy John and won’t be back until the second half.

Brady Rodgers is also recovering from Tommy John, though his timetable is unclear.

Weather Forecast

The Astros have a retractable roof so the weather isn’t too important. Unsurprisingly, it looks like it’ll be hot and sunny all weekend.